You might recognise the title as the question posed to Alice by the enigmatic caterpillar upon their first meeting. It raises the question of identity and identification, and here the shallow waters we step into can soon lead us into the depths.
Like all questions the question of identification may lead us in many directions. No question is really isolated, but let’s skip past some of the more obvious lines of enquiry and start with the often repeated spiritual assertion, “You are that.”
The challenge we face when engaging with any spiritual subject is that we aim for seeing but so often get lost in thinking. How much simpler would the path be if thought formations could lead lead us to truth? Unfortunately they can’t and indeed there is no path, not really. The answer lies in square one, in one sense but we’ll come to that.
But in this case we’re going to use thought to help us rather than hold us back. Thought will be our starting point, our jumping off point, as we take this simple assertion and consider it in practice. What do I mean by that? Well let’s start by considering the example of a dream.
Last night I dreamt I was standing by a river. For the purposes of this enquiry, may I suggest you pick a recent dream you remember to act as you own example. I wasn’t alone by the bank of the river, but then, quite obviously on reflection, I wasn’t really there was I? The body standing by the river wasn’t a real body. It wasn’t flesh and bone, it was a projection, so to speak. And so was the river.
Both were really projections or what we might label thought formations. So was I the figure by the river or the river, or both? What about the others in the dream? Was I them? Remember all comes from the same source so how was I any less them than the figure that looked like me? But I identify with the form I recognise as my own don’t I? I make that ‘me’. But it’s only so because of identification, isn’t it?
Within the dream, any dream, all is projected from the same source. You are the monster chasing you, as much as you are the fleeing victim. You are the cliff you fall from as surely as you are the body in space. Within the dream then, ‘You are that’, it’s just a matter of identification, isn’t it?
And we do this even when we’re awake. For example, we have a thought about someone with whom we’ve had a disagreement. We picture the scenario: I say one thing, they say another. We state our points, I argue this way, they argue a different way; I craft my responses to win the debate – then rewind and start all over again.
But who am I in this scenario? Where am I? And who is this other person? They’re all from the same source aren’t they? Each projection equally so, but again, there’s a clear identification with the protagonist. But it’s only an identification isn’t it? All elements within this mental projection are equally from the same source. If we look we can see this process of projection and identification. So then even in waking thought, ‘You are that’, whatever that might be.
But really when we come across the statement ‘You are that’, we take it to mean the so called real, waking world, rather than in thought or in a dream. And this is where it gets tricky to see. To begin we need to recognise that there is an element within our experience of the world which we may call perception. I’m not talking about the ‘raw’ sense data that comes in, nor about the thoughts we have about things, but the stage in between. This stage is the point at which sense data is interpreted, related, guaged, measured, associated – and so perceived. Perception is what turns a random canvas of colour into forms and shapes that are known and understood.
It happens so quickly, so seamlessly, it goes unnoticed. But when it is noticed, we see that our world is really mind-created. That’s not to say there’s nothing there, it’s simply to see that what we recognise as being there is a perception in the mind; a thought formation. This distinction is important.
We always assume we see and sense the real world, but the so called real world is only a limited construction in thought. For example, does only the visible light part of the electromagnetic spectrum reflect off each form in front of us? It may make up a lot of what does but clearly there’s more isn’t there? So what it ‘looks’ like isn’t so much a product of what it reflects or emits, it’s a product of what these sensors, the eyes can detect.
Much more than this, it’s what the mind creates from this as it seeks patterns, forms connections, and develops understanding. All in thought.
Awareness arises through this form, filtering sense data, developing understanding, forming perceptions. ‘Me’ is no more than an identification with a set of processes associated with this form, perceived as separate. One apparently discreet set of processes amongst countless other processes in the ever-moving moment; this constantly changing now.
It is this identification, in thought, with this form, the cognitive processes that arise, the tendencies and habits that have developed and countless other elements, that create the sense of a ‘me’. But in reality where is this ‘me’? In reality what is there more than simply processes, changing in the moment?
This ‘me’ is really a thought, a perception. All simply is, as it is, projected from the same source. And again the question is one of identification. As long as we decide this set of ‘processes’ is somehow a separate, discreet ‘self’ then we remain locked into this self-view. But once we see that nothing is separate, not really, we start to see, ‘You are that’, because there really is no ‘you’ and no ‘that’. No separation.
Where do we go to to find this truth? It’s right here all along, in square one. We see a path because we think there’s a ‘me’ to walk it. If there is no ‘me’ there is no path, not really. It’s all as it is. Life living itself.